Jefferson  County Case Study
Improve Fire Prevention and Suppression Reduce Hazardous FuelsRestore Fire Adapted Ecosystems Promote Community AssistanceSummary


WGA Goal - Restore Fire Adapted Ecosystems

Actions to meet goal

  • Perform burned area stabilization and rehabilitation work in emergency areas
  • Restore burned areas and repair and improve lands unlikely to recover
  • Place priority on at risk watersheds that have been damaged by wildland fire
  • Establish native seeds and other plant material
  • Publicize and train in the use of minimum impact suppression activities
  • Promote research of effective restoration practices
  • Research interactions between fire, land management and other disturbances

Upper South Platte Watershed Protection and Restoration Project (USPWRPP)

The South Platte Watershed, located southwest of Denver, supplies 70% of Denver’s water and is a major recreational attraction. The Upper South Platte Watershed Protection and Restoration Project encompasses 640,000 acres southwest of Denver, and includes 525,000 acres in the USFS Pike and San Isabel National Forests, 100,000 acres of private lands, 16,000 acres owned by Denver Water, and 4,000 acres managed by State Forestry. There are 13 watersheds in the project area. In 1996 the Buffalo Creek Fire burned 11,900 acres of this watershed, destroyed 12 homes and created erosion in the granitic soils common to this area. Heavy rains in the months that followed resulted in flooding and additional damage to property and infrastructure in the region. The Upper South Platte Watershed Protection and Restoration Project was initiated in August 1998 as a response to these threats.

The Project is a comprehensive watershed-level restoration effort involving public and private ownership. The Core Team consists of CSFS and USFS employees, each working on and coordinating their own projects. Since the Project began in 1998, CSFS has completed treatment on approximately 5,000 acres, while USFS has completed treatment on 815 acres. It has been easier to get work done on Denver Water lands, which CSFS oversees, because there are fewer constraints with environmental planning and purchasing and bidding systems than are found when working on USFS lands.

USFS fuels treatment pictureThe 17,000 acre treatment area is estimated to take 5-6 years and $12,000,000 to complete. Ideally the USFS and CSFS will bring back the pre-settlement characteristics and introduce fire back into the ecosystem. The treatment prescription is to a historic vegetative state. They are creating openings on 25-30% of the land, promoting pond pine stands, 20% old growth stands and 20% Douglas fir and ponderosa pine stands. In the South Platte Project area they are cutting trees up to 10-11 diameter and will maintain areas with summer burning. Each agency retains the final decision making authority for their land. Initially CSFS and USFS tried to share information through a steering committee, but since the Hayman Fire in 2002 they have not met on a regular basis..

Denver Water and Private Land Treatments

Colorado State Forest Service is also working on portions of the Upper South Platte Project. They have two primary areas in which they are working-Lower Elk Creek and Denver Water lands. The Lower Elk Creek project has treated 376 acres of fuelbreaks, defensible spaces and thinning since it began in 2000. Fuelbreaks have been created on 170 acres, while 61 defensible spaces have been created on homeowner property. CSFS also has worked closely with Denver Water to complete 5,000 acres of thinning and 24 acres of prescribed burning around Cheesman Reservoir and Trumbull area, which is credited with saving the structures during the 2002 fires.

Deckers pictureThere is one Good Neighbor Agreement on the South Platte Project with more being planned. South of Deckers is a small one-six acres that protects houses. Good Neighbor Agreements allow CSFS to contract out work while the USFS pays for it. CSFS is getting ready to sign off on a broader Good Neighbor Agreement at a watershed scale. CSFS will take on the responsibility for implementation up to one half mile outside of private lands in this watershed area.

Lower Elk Creek

CSFS has carved out the roughly 12,000-acre Lower Elk Creek management unit, which is all state and private land, no USFS land. Work began on the Lower Elk Creek in 2000. The purpose of the project is to get private landowner's to mitigate through a defensible space cost-share program and to do fuel breaks on private land. The area is not comprised of established communities, rather it is a handful of subdivisions and stand-alone homes on different size lots ranging from 1-20+ acres. CSFS holds meetings with homeowners and neighborhood associations, and structures community meetings to talk about fire mitigation. During 2000, CSFS conducted eleven presentations to local groups, including the Kiwanis and Rotary, and wrote monthly articles for local newspapers and magazines. Free sites visits were made to the 100 Lower Elk Creek landowners that had more than 20 acres of land. Presentations to local middle and high schools were conducted with letters going to parents about wildfire mitigation.

lower elk creek posterThe Lower Elk Creek project began in June 2000 and as of December 2002 CSFS had treated 376 acres, about 150 acres per year, at a cost of $410,000. Approximately 90 homes have created defensible space for about 120 total acres, five projects were fuel breaks for about 200 acres total, and 50 acres of thinning. Defensible space costs ranged from $350 to $4,000, depending on the lot size, tree density, slope and access.

Denver Water Lands

CSFS also has worked closely with Denver Water and treated 5,000 acres of thinning and prescribed burning around Cheesman Reservoir and Trumbull area, which was credited with saving the structures during the 2002 fires. CSFS has created a 100-acre demo site within the 5,000 acre treatment area for educational purposes. The site is located near roads and includes descriptive signs and an interpretive trail for the public. On this site they removed 60-70% of the trees and reduced basal areas from 80 to 48. The 100 acres is divided into two sites-60 and 40 acres. In 1999-2000 they did 60 acres where they used traditional logging with a chainsaw, rubber tire skidder and lop and scatter slash up to 18 inches. Now there is an open timber stand, with high canopy, leaving old trees. In April 2002 CSFS treated 40 acres using a hydroaxe and cat. On the abutting USFS lands, USFS treated 800 acres.


USFS Land Treatments

Red Zone map

The USDA Forest Service work is prioritized by risks, the most hazardous areas, the red zone. USFS is doing approximately 15% of its own work and contracting out the other 85%. In 2002, the average cost for treatment in the Upper South Platte Project was $850 per acre - of that $346 is the direct contract cost, plus $149 pile slash, and $65 - 70 per acre for pile burning.

Waterton/Deckers and Horse Creek are the highest priority areas due to the combination of high fire risk, erodible soils and the potential to impact water quality. Two Decision Notices were rendered in August 2001 for vegetation restoration in these areas. The first was for management of up to 12,200 acres in non-roadless areas in the two watersheds and the second enabling management on 5,200 acres in inventoried roadless areas.

The Decision Notice for management in the non-Roadless areas was not appealed, enabling work to begin early in FY 2002. The Decision Notice for management in the Inventoried Roadless Areas was appealed by a coalition of environmental groups, including the American Lands Alliance, the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, Center for Native Ecosystems, Colorado Wildlife, the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, The Wilderness Society, The Wildland Center for the Prevention of Roads and the Upper Arkansas-South Platte Project. The basis of the appeal was opposition to vegetative treatments in the inventoried roadless areas. This appeal resulted in additional economic analysis and the prescription was altered. Language having a potential to threaten wilderness character was changed, mechanical treatment was reduced from 1,000 to 250 acres, openings were reduced from 40 to 5 acres, tree diameter for thinning was reduced from 18 to 14 inches, basal areas were increased from 60 to 80 and a more aggressive plan for reclaiming roads was devised. A new Decision Notice was issued in January 2002 with a Finding of No Significant Impact. This decision also was appealed by the same coalition of environmental groups as well as by an association representing timber interests. In April 2002 the decision was issued upholding the January 2002 Decision Notice.

In December 2002 the USFS was scheduled to begin treatment on a total of 5,200 acres in the "roadless" portions of the Upper South Platte River Basin, but fires during the summer of 2002 delayed this work. The Hayman, Schoonover and Snaking Fires consumed 6,726 of the 17,400 acres of National Forest land that had been planned for treatment. NEPA project layout work, fuels treatments done on Denver Water properties around Cheesman Reservoir and monitoring studies and research in the Cheesman Reservoir were lost. A Changed Condition Analysis was completed in October of 2003. The new round of planning has given the USFS an opportunity to re-prioritize areas for treatment as part of the Front Range Fuels Treatment Partnership. In the original project planning communities were not the main priority for protection. Chuck Dennis, CSFS, clarifies the new approach "we are trying to reallocate those 6,000 acres and [use] the Good Neighbor Agreements so that we can do implementation near communities."

The South Platte project will contribute to the larger Front Range Fuels Treatment Partnership. The Front Range Fuels Treatment Project will provide additional funds to the South Platte Project and the number of acres to be treated has been doubled from 2,000 to 4,000 acres per year.

In the fall of 2002, the USFS completed its first fuel treatments on 815 acres through contracts awarded prior to the Hayman Fire and they have about 3,000 additional acres ready to go to contract. 645 acres have been treated on Trumbull and 170 acres on Russell Ridge. The bulk of the thinning was completed through a performance-based, end-result Forest Service contracts to mechanically thin dense mixed conifer forest. The contractor used a track-mounted excavator with a hot saw to masticate most of the trees less than nine inches in diameter. The USFS also completed a 12-acre demonstration site with a Hydro-Ax using a micro-purchasing authority.

USFS has funded the Upper South Platte Watershed Project in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 at $850,000 annually. An additional $100,000 is allocated on an annual basis for the Rocky Mountain Research Station for research. In 2002 the USPWP was funded through a combination of public funds and in-kind matches.

Monitoring for the South Platte Project is happening on a large scale at the watershed level and also at the project level. The USFS has taken the lead on the monitoring of the project. The Forest Service is doing vegetative monitoring but has contracted with Colorado State University to do soil and watershed monitoring. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is monitoring threatened and endangered species. Wildlife monitoring was increased in 2002 to document fire effects on wildlife and habitat, though the Hayman Fire disrupted planned monitoring efforts in the Trumbull and Saloon Gulch treatment areas. The fires also had significant impacts on the watershed vegetation monitoring program. Active vegetation monitoring was occurring in three areas of the watershed, Saloon Gulch, Upper Spring Creek and Trumbull.

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Copyright©2003 Toddi A. Steelman and North Carolina State University

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